The Global Aesthetics of the Catholic Imagination was a conference held at the headquarters of La Civiltà Cattolica, from May 25-27, 2023. Organized by our magazine together with Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The meeting brought together over 40 poets, storytellers, screenwriters and filmmakers from various countries around the world who identify as Catholic, or who feel that Catholicism has been a formative dimension of their artistic development.
Participants engaged in a conversation about the spiritual and religious dimensions of life that continue to shape their poetic and literary imagery. Many questions were asked: how do artists from various cultures experience Catholicism as a resource for their creative work? What are the ways in which faith interrogates life, explores the human condition, and responds to the hunger for meaning? In what ways do artists use discourses – sometimes even transgressive or heterodox – that challenge the intellectual, social or political legacy in which this faith is lived out in the contemporary world?
The keynote speeches were given by Card. José Tolentino de Mendonça, prefect of the Dicastery for Culture and Education, and Fr. Antonio Spadaro, director of La Civiltà Cattolica. On the last day, a conversation was held between American director Martin Scorsese and Fr. Spadaro. On Saturday, May 27, at 10:30 a.m., the participants, together with their families, were received in audience by Pope Francis, who addressed those present with the speech that we reproduce below.
Dear brothers and sisters, welcome
I greet and thank Fr. Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and Prof. John DeGioia, president of Georgetown University. I am pleased to meet with you as the Conference is taking place that brings together poets, writers, screenwriters and filmmakers from various parts of the world around the theme of poetic imagination and Catholic inspiration. I know that these days you have been reflecting on what are the ways through which faith interrogates contemporary life, thus trying to respond to the hunger for meaning. This “meaning” is not reducible to a concept, no. It is a total meaning that takes poetry, symbol, feeling. The real meaning is not the dictionary meaning: that is the meaning of the word, and the word is an instrument of all that is within us.
I have loved many poets and writers in my life, among whom I especially remember Dante, Dostoevsky and others. I also have to thank my students at the Colegio de la Inmaculada Concepción in Santa Fe, with whom I shared my readings when I was young and taught literature. The words of writers helped me to understand myself, the world, my people; but also to deepen the human heart, my personal life of faith, and even my pastoral task, even now in this ministry. So, the literary word is like a thorn in your heart that moves you to contemplation and sets you on a journey. Poetry is open; it throws you somewhere else. From this personal experience, today I would like to share with you some thoughts on the importance of your service.
The first I would like to express it like this: you are eyes that look and dream. Not only looking, but also dreaming. We human beings yearn for a new world that we will probably not fully see with our own eyes, yet we long for it, we seek it, we dream of it. A Latin American writer said that we have two eyes: one of flesh and the other of glass. With the one of flesh we look at what we see; with the one of glass we look at what we dream. Poor us if we stop dreaming, poor us!
The artist is the man who with his eyes looks and at the same time dreams, sees deeper, prophesies, announces a different way of seeing and understanding the things that are before our eyes. In fact, poetry does not speak of reality from abstract principles, but by listening to reality itself: work, love, death and all the little big things that fill life. And, in this sense, it helps us to “catch the voice of God even from the voice of time.” Yours is – to quote Paul Claudel – an “eye that listens.” Art is an antidote against the mentality of calculation and uniformity; it is a challenge to our imagination, to our way of seeing and understanding things. And in this sense the Gospel itself is an artistic challenge, with a “revolutionary” charge that you are called to express through your genius with a word that protests, calls, shouts. Today the Church needs your genius because it needs to protest, call and shout.
However, I would like to say a second thing: you are also the voice of human anxieties. So many times anxieties are buried in the depths of the heart. You know well that artistic inspiration is not only comforting, but also disturbing, because it presents both the beautiful realities of life and the tragic ones. Art is the fertile ground in which the “polar oppositions” of reality are expressed, which always require a creative and non-rigid language capable of conveying powerful messages and visions. For example, think of when Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov tells of a child, small, the son of a servant girl, who throws a stone and hits the paw of one of the master’s dogs. Then the master sets all the dogs on the child. He runs away and tries to save himself from the fury of the pack, but ends up being mauled under the satisfied eyes of the general and the desperate eyes of the mother. This scene has tremendous artistic and political power: it speaks of the reality of yesterday and today, of wars, social conflicts, and our personal selfishness. To quote just one poetic passage that challenges us.
And I am not only referring to the social criticism in that passage. I am talking about the tensions of the soul, the complexity of decisions, the contradictory nature of existence. There are things in life that sometimes we can’t even understand or for which we can’t find the appropriate words: this is your fertile ground, your field of action. And this is also the place where you often experience God. An experience that is always “overflowing”: you can’t take it, you feel it and it goes beyond; it is always overflowing, the experience of God, like a pool where water falls continuously and, after a while, it fills up and the water overflows, overflows. This is what I would also like to ask of you today: to go beyond closed and defined edges, to be creative, without domesticating your anxieties and those of humanity. I am afraid of this process of domestication, because it takes away creativity, it takes away poetry. With the word of poetry, gather the restless desires that dwell in the human heart, so that they do not grow cold and extinguish. This work allows the Spirit to act, to create harmony within the tensions and contradictions of human life, to keep the fire of good passions burning and to contribute to the growth of beauty in all its forms, that beauty which is expressed precisely through the richness of the arts.
This is your work as poets, storytellers, filmmakers, artists: to give life, to give body, to give word to everything human beings experience, feel, dream, suffer, creating harmony and beauty. It is an evangelical work that helps us better understand God, too, as the great poet of humanity. Will you be criticized? That’s fine, carry the burden of criticism, also trying to learn from criticism. But still, do not stop being original, creative. Don’t lose the wonder of being alive.
So, dreaming eyes, voice of human anxieties; and therefore you also have a great responsibility. And what is it? This is the third thing I would like to say to you: you are among those who shape our imagination. This is important. For your work has a consequence on the spiritual imagination of the people of our time, especially concerning the figure of Christ. In this time of ours – as I have already had occasion to say – “we need the genius of new language, of powerful stories and images, of writers, poets, artists capable of shouting the Gospel message to the world, of making us see Jesus.”
Your work helps us to see Jesus, to heal our imagination from everything that obscures his face or, even worse, from everything that wants to domesticate him. To tame the face of Christ, almost to try to define him and close him in our schemes, is to destroy his image. The Lord always surprises us, Christ is always greater, he is always a mystery that somehow escapes us. We struggle to put him inside a frame and hang him on the wall. He always surprises us, and when we do not feel that the Lord surprises us, something is wrong: our heart is finished and closed.
Here is the challenge for the Catholic imagination of our time, the challenge that is handed over to you: not to “explain” the mystery of Christ, which in reality is inexhaustible; but to make us touch him, to make us feel him immediately close, to deliver him to us as a living reality, and to make us grasp the beauty of his promise. Because his promise helps our imagination: it helps us imagine our life, our history and the future of humanity in a new way! And here I come back to another masterpiece of Dostoevsky’s, which is small but has all these things in it: the “Stories from the Underground.” In there is all the greatness of humanity and all the sorrows of humanity, all the miseries, together. That is the way.
Dear friends, thank you for your service. Keep dreaming, keep restless, keep imagining words and visions that help us read the mystery of human life and orient our societies toward beauty and universal fraternity. Help us again to open our imaginations so that they may go beyond the narrow confines of the self and open to the holy mystery of God. Go forward, without tiring, with creativity and courage! I bless you and pray for you; and you, too, please pray for me. Thank you.
.The conference program included the presence of poets Ewa Chrusciel (Poland/USA); Tadeusz Dąbrowski (Poland); Hilary Davies (England); John F. Deane (Ireland); Moira Egan (Ireland/Italy); Pietro Federico (Italy); Daniele Gigli (Italy); Róisín Kelly (Ireland); Philip Metres (USA); Angela Alaimo O’Donnell (USA); Sally Read (England/Italy). Writers also participated: Christopher Beha (USA); Jane Borges (India); Randy Boyagoda (Canada); Emmanuel Bueya, S.I. (DRC); Liam Callanan (USA); Sr. Dominica Dipio (Uganda); Naresh Fernandes (India); Phil Klay (USA); Okey Ndibe (Nigeria/USA); Alice McDermott (USA); Michael John O’Malley (USA). Dominica Dipio (Uganda); Naresh Fernandes (India); Phil Klay (Usa); Okey Ndibe (Nigeria/Usa); Alice McDermott (Usa); Michael John O’Neil (Scotland/Northern Ireland); Enuma Okoro (Nigeria/Usa); Yvonne Owuor (Kenya); Chika Unigwe (Nigeria/Usa).
. K. Rahner, Freedom of Speech in the Church. The proposals of Christianity, Turin, Borla, 1964, 37.
. Cf. R. Guardini, The Polar Opposition. Essay for a philosophy of the concrete living, Brescia, Morcelliana, 1977.
. Francis, “Preface,” in A. Spadaro, A Divine Plot. Jesus in the counterfield, Venice, Marsilio, 2023, 10.